Northwestern graduate students Anastasia Simferovska (left) and Neonila Glukhodid helped organize the painting of the Rock on campus Monday to support the Ukrainian resistance against Russia’s invasion of their home country. (Photo by Richard Cahan)

As a child growing up in Lviv in western Ukraine, a city of 700,000 people, Anastasia Simferovska lived in a small apartment with her family, just a seven-minute walk from the airport.

She remembers making that walk time and again, smelling the coffee brewing in the city’s cafes and the aroma of chocolate wafting from pastry shops, both as she left home and when she returned. She remembers the medieval city walls that encircle the original town of Lviv, which was founded in the 13th century, and the 21st-century street art decorating the outside of those walls. 

“When I’m thinking of my city now, today, I am dreaming only to walk these seven minutes to the airport, which will be open, which will be admitting planes from all over the world, with people having their last drop of good Lviv coffee before they depart and go either to spend a weekend at the sea or to fly to the United States,” Simferovska said. 

When she was young, her bedridden great-grandmother told her stories about living through both world wars and the Great Famine of 1933, which killed millions of Ukrainians living in the Soviet Union. Because she lived so near the airport, she could hear planes arriving and departing all night long.

Sometimes, while Simferovska was trying to sleep, she would cover her head with her blanket and imagine she was her great-grandmother back in 1941, hiding from Nazis landing war planes at the airport so close to her home.

“I just recall this memory right now, from 30 years ago, and with horror, I’m thinking how now little kids in Ukraine are experiencing that for real,” she said. “It just tears my heart.”

Simferovska now lives in Evanston and is a Slavic studies doctoral student at Northwestern University. Her husband, Yohanan Petrovsky-Shtern, is the Crown Family Professor of Jewish Studies at Northwestern. He was born in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, and studied in Moscow before coming to the United States. Their family and friends, however, remain in Ukraine, facing a bloody Russian war. 

On Feb. 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin began a large-scale military invasion of Ukraine, Russia’s neighboring country to the southwest.

Petrovsky-Shtern’s mother was six years old when she fled the Nazi occupation of Kyiv. Now, she is 87, and she has spent the last six nights in a row in a bomb shelter in Kyiv, praying for her country as Russian missiles rain down. 

Simferovska’s parents are still in Lviv, and her mom continues to work in a coffee shop every day, handing out food and supplies while the war rages to their east. She would have considered helping her parents leave the country, but her grandmother is 91, and she can’t walk well.

“If not for the fact that I have a 22-month-old daughter – she will be two on May 1 – I am sure that I would have done everything possible to come to Ukraine, at least Lviv, to be with my people, just to be there,” Simferovska said. “Because to look at everything going on from a distance is horrible beyond imagination.”

Last month, Petrovsky-Shtern signed a letter from Ukrainian Jews to German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, pleading for Germany to take stronger actions against Russia’s military mobilization. The letter said the group was “well aware” of the dangers of an appeasement strategy, referring to the hands-off approach that European nations initially took toward Adolf Hitler’s aggression in the 1930s. 

During a segment of WTTW’s “Chicago Tonight,” filmed last Thursday, Petrovsky-Shtern condemned Putin as “mocking international law” and said he is in constant contact with his family, friends and colleagues in Ukraine. 

“They are telling me that they are calm, that they stand firm and that they are ready to defend the country,” Petrovsky-Shtern said during the segment. “They are indignant when they talk about the unprovoked invasion of Russian troops into sovereign Ukraine. And they talk from different places, some of them on the way to bomb shelters, some of them in a subway also looking for cover, others at home.” 

Like Simferovska, Ilya Kutik, a Northwestern Professor of Slavic Languages and Culture, grew up in Lviv, but he later went on to study in Moscow, Sweden and the United States. In a Tuesday interview with the RoundTable, Kutik said his Ukrainian friends are determined to stay in Lviv and wait out the war.

He also said millions of ordinary Russians disagree with Putin’s actions. 

“I want the West to understand that not all Russians are on the side of Putin,” he said. “It pains me to see Russians in this situation.” 

On Monday, Feb. 28, Simferovska and other Ukrainians at Northwestern helped organize the painting of the Northwestern Rock with the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag. Kutik said those colors now represent freedom for people across the world.

Graduate student Thomas Feerick (left) and Professor Michal Wilczewski, both of the Department of Slavic Studies, join in the work. (Photo by Richard Cahan)

But Simferovska also said one of the major problems is that western countries are only now starting to hear more about Ukrainian history and culture. At most major American universities, including Northwestern, Slavic studies departments do not have any branch dedicated to Ukrainian studies, instead focusing on Russian language, history and culture. 

Now is the time for countries like the U.S. to invest in Ukrainian history by hiring scholars of the Ukrainian language, people and culture, Simferovska said. Otherwise, Putin will erase Ukrainian memories, killing citizens and bombing museums.  

But, in the meantime, the Evanston and Chicago communities have shown support for Ukraine’s sovereignty, and Simferovska has found community among other Ukrainians living in the area. 

“When I go to campus, I just take the Ukrainian flag as a scarf on me. Many, many people in my neighborhood when I’m walking with my daughter, or even an Uber driver today, they express their solidarity. They just wish all the best for the country and for the people and for my family, so that is a kind of support that is just crucial,” she said. “Now, the colors of the Ukrainian flag are uniting people, not only Ukrainians but people who wish to feel safe, people who wish to feel free and to live in a peaceful world.”

Duncan Agnew

Duncan Agnew covers Evanston public schools, affordable housing, City Hall and more for the RoundTable. He also writes long-form investigations, features and the morning email newsletter three times a...

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  1. Thank you duncan agnew and to the evanston Roundtable for writing and publishing this interesting, informative, and insightful article.
    Kudos!!